In search of "Dragon Bones"
In 1899 a man called Wang Yirong, a director in the Imperial Academy of State Education in Beijing became ill with malaria. His doctor sent to the local apothecary for the best known treatment of malaria - ground up dragon bones!
When the dragon bones arrived, Wang Yirong and his house guest Liu E, were very surprised by what they received. The dragon bones were not ground up as usual and when they examined the bones more closely they noticed that something was written on them.
Wang Yirong and Liu E were both very interested in palaeography. They thought that the symbols and markings on the bones were early forms of writing. They decided to find out more about these bones.
They bought as many unground 'dragon bones' from the apothecary as possible. Other people learned about their discovery and a lot of interest grew around the bones. Where did they come from? Were they really dragons' bones? What were the symbols written on them? Who had written these characters?
The bone dealers tried to keep the bones' place of origin secret for as long as possible. However in 1908 the philologist Luo Zhenyu found out the source of the bones from one of the dealers. They came from Anyang in Henan province.
Luo Zhenyu went to Anyang and found hundreds and thousands of the bones buried in pits. A farmer told him that these bones were dug up everyday by people ploughing their land. They sold them to apothecaries in the big cities.
The farmer told him that when they found bones with writing, they would scrape the symbols off. They were afraid that no one would believe these were dragon bones if someone had written on them. Luo Zhenyu could see that these 'bones' were actually oxen shoulder blades or turtle plastrons. Most of them had writing and a number of hollows bored into them.
The bones were used by the kings of ancient China as tools to find out about the future. Pits were bored into the bones. A diviner would then ask a question on behalf of the king, for example 'Will we have a good harvest this year?'
A hot poker was applied to the pits in the bone. The heat from the poker would make the bone crack. Depending on what side of the bone the crack appeared, the diviner would know if the answer to the question was 'yes' or 'no'. The answers to the question, and the date, were then written on the bone.
Historians and archaeologists gathered lots of useful information from the oracle bones. They discovered the names of nearly all of the Shang kings. They also found out what things were important to the kings.
The trade in 'dragon bones' for the farmers in Anyang was now over. However, there was a great deal of interest in collecting the oracle bones. The farmers who once worried that the writing on the bones would make them difficult to sell then learned that the bones were much more valuable with writing on!